Living a simple life: F is for Friendship

F is for… Friendship

This post is part of the 2017 A-Z Challenge. Woot! 

I had two choice for F: food, fandom or friendship. Truth is, the three are fairly tightly connected. However: today we are talking about friendship.

I am drafting this from a train, where I sit with my other half, P and my friend R. We are heading to Glasgow to see another friend (K), and go and watch Caro Emerald in concert. This came about because K moved to Glasgow a while back, and we wanted to visit.

As things fell out, K moved away from Glasgow before the time for the concert came about. By that point, however, we were committed.

So it became an adventure. Travelling to Glasgow is not quick — the train journey is five and a half hours, and that from Northampton, where we spent the night with my friend R.

It reminds me of the time I did an exchange with a university in the USA. I had a group of friends I had made from an online forum, and I criss-crossed the states in that six month period, couch-surfing from one place to another. It was a mad adventure, where I went from LA — rubbing shoulders with teenagers with perfectly sculpted hair and tanned skin who claimed to be professional skateboarders — to a tumbledown house deep in the Bible belt where we threw lightbulbs into a bonfire of junk. America is a strange and varied place.

Internet meme plus MLP. How could I resist.

I can be a solitary creature, and yet other people and my relationships with them have shaped my life far more drastically than any decision of my own.

Meeting P, for example. A chance meeting at best, when he happened to be in the same room as another of my friends and took my screen name from him. We talked, we became friends and then fell in love. Faced with the problems of a long-distance relationship, we got married — a whirlwind event, that we agreed to do before we had lived together. In fact, we had barely spent any real time together. Anybody would warn against such a choice; to tangle your life up with someone that you barely knew.

Yet that decision ended up being the best I have ever made.

I like to read Vonnegut books; it’s one of my guilty pleasures to re-read them. In Cat’s Cradle he talked of finding your ‘karass’, your cosmically significant group of people.

If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons that person may be a member of your karass. — Bokonon aka Kurt Vonnegut.

I am an atheist, but this speaks to me. It is less about cosmic significance, perhaps, than finding the people that make you feel comfortable, at home, safe to be yourself — and thus safe to be able to do the things that only you can do.

We constantly perform. At work I am one person, with some other friends, arms-length friends, I am another. But with the people who are my karass I can be exactly as goofy, forgetful, distractible, obsessed and silly as I like — and I can also be as passionate, as earnest, as determined as I feel.

Squad goals: living in a temple on a beach playing music.

What is this entry? It is a rambling, disjointed post. It hasn’t got across how important my friendships are, my relationships are. It hasn’t really explained how, when I am with them, I feel whole, put-together in some indefinable way.

As I get older, my friendships become more important. They also get harder. My friends have jobs that suck up their time and energy, some have children, everyone has responsibilities. Mortgages or student loans to repay. I cannot imagine being able to up-sticks and travel the USA couch-surfing for months on end now. Yet somehow the five hour train journey to Glasgow means more than that whole adventure, because it is harder — and more precious as a result.

Performing a U-Turn (pretend like you knew where you were going all along)

We all have plans.

Those plans, the big ones, become part of our identity. “I’m the science-type who’s going to make a career in bio-tech.” “I’m the self-sufficient sort who is going to build my own eco-friendly house from scratch.” or “I’m the kind of l33t player who is going to be a World Champion in World of Warcraft.”

I have wanted to move to the USA since I went there as part of a University exchange program. It didn’t matter that I went to a podunk town in the middle of rural Ohio. I loved the place. I loved the wide-open vistas, the idea that I could go into a real wilderness, the way everyone was so open and friendly, and even the food — venison, steak, ranch dressing, refried beans (not all on the same plate!).

When I met P, I fell in love and we agreed to get married. Initially, he had to come to the UK as I had a better paying job. We decided he would get his British Citizenship (two-three years) and then we would move to the USA.

For the next seven years that was the plan. We shifted priorities, but that was always the end game. I would move to the USA. We delayed it when I got my breakthrough job as Digital Communications Officer (until that point I had nothing that resembled a ‘career’), as I knew I needed at least two years experience.

But, at long last, I filled out my visa application. I let my employer know I would be leaving in a few months. And… I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Delays can mean legal immigrants (yes, even those married to an American) sit on a waiting list for months and months. In our case, I had already been separated from P  for most of the previous two years due to ‘life reasons’.

A year of waiting for the visa slipped by.

Our relationship, until that point incredibly strong, began to suffer. Both of us were ‘living in limbo’, waiting for a decision that could come at any point. Both of us were struggling alone, dealing with loneliness, the difficulty of communicating across different time-zones, and (in my case) the impossibility of planning your life when you have no idea if you’re going to be around for a week or another year.

Then I got a new job. A great job, part-time, that would give me time to write and still leave me with enough money to cover our living expenses.

Friendships I had formed in the UK were reaching ten and twenty year anniversaries. The thought of leaving them behind became devastating, especially as I leaned on them more and more in P’s absence.

But this was the plan. We had to stick to the plan. We had invested years of our lives and thousands of dollars into the plan. No matter that we were unhappy, lonely, and that I was less and less sure about the benefits of moving to a place with little work and no public transport.

Until, one day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had a bad week. I was sick, and then I got food poisoning. As I threw up, alone, I realised I was done waiting and being alone.

The realisation was both terrifying and a relief at the same time.

The realisation that we could just stop.

Of course, it would be difficult. Giving up on anything is hard. We had spent the last couple of years ferrying suitcases of possessions across the Atlantic. P. had put a lot of work into trying to create a home for us in the USA. Our families had to be told. It was emotionally difficult.

It meant giving up on a dream we had held for a long time.

But giving up was less difficult, and less devastating, than trying to hold on.

Sometimes, you have to change direction.

Maybe that is giving up on a long-term relationship.

Maybe that is giving up on a career you’ve invested years into building but that isn’t making you happy any more.

Maybe it’s giving up on the idea of becoming a World Champion WoW player, because, hey, you need to focus on your job.

And maybe it’s giving up on the idea of living in another country.

 

Farewell 2014

This has been a strange year.

  • I left my job and went to America for 3 months, where I survived on goodwill.
  • I watched my visa get further and further away.
  • I experienced an emotional roller coaster of goodbyes and hellos.
  • I made money from freelancing.
  • I wrote several flash fictions and two first drafts of novels.
  • I read 64 books.
  • I lay for hours in the sun.
  • I made new friends.
  • I lost old friends.
  • I celebrated my sixth wedding anniversary, but spent only 3 months in 2014 with my husband.
  • I waited for my life to start, and meanwhile my life kept happening all around me.

Tomorrow I will write about my hopes for 2015.

 

Home sweet… home?

We can sometimes overlook the importance of friendship and (dare I say it) community. In a world where people are uprooting themselves, travelling further and further, taking opportunities in other cities, countries, continents… we should remember what we lose when we travel far from home.

It’s something I lacked in the USA. I went out and about with my partner’s friends and family, of course. But friendships that have lasted five, ten, even fifteen years are impossible to replace overnight.

Coming back to Towcester — my childhood home — felt strange. I know all the streets, can wander easily around the water-meadows, and the fields behind Belle Baulk. I run into people I haven’t seen since I worked as a bartender and they wave and say hi. A decade has passed, but they still recognise me. I have friends here, and in the nearby cities. People that did not ‘run’ as far as I did.

I worked here, built relationships with fellow writers (Hi Miss Write! Hi Matt Holland!)

There are people here that would take me in if I became homeless, that share their wifi with me when my internet breaks down, that recommend my web-development skills to people they know. A network, some people close friends, and some people just to wave at me in the street. But I am known.

It takes time, so much time, to build a group of friends and colleagues like that. And the benefits go far beyond someone to have a drink with. Those people have found me work, helped me move, kept me sane. They don’t call it a ‘support network’ for nothing!

Of course, it’s easier now. Emails, blogs, facebook, skype… they all help keep you in touch with people far away. But the truth is: nothing beats face-to-face, and nothing beats that web of favours given and received.

It’s good to be back, although I hope it is temporary.

The heartache of bureaucracy

He left in October 2013. Went across the Atlantic, to tend to family and duty and home.

I stayed in England. Filled out forms. A petition to apply for a visa to join the person I’d been married to for six years. The website said six months. I posted the forms and waited. Rented a room in a house closer to work. Each day I came home and cooked dinner for one. Watched netflix in an attempt to drown the wrongness. Slept on one side of a double-bed. Researched Cincinnati.

We got a letter that said the Nebraska Service Centre had received our petition to apply. We waited in vain for some confirmation that the petition had been approved, that we could move to the next step and fill out an actual application. Six months came and went. The days were filled with friends and work and people, but each night I curled up on the left side of my double bed and hugged myself. Each night the tension grew a little tighter.

In April I gave up. Cancelled my plans to catch a boat, triumphant immigrant, papers in hand. Instead I booked a plane ticket. Three month tourist visa. I would leave in June and return in August. Three months together: our seventh wedding anniversary, my birthday, his birthday. I would turn thirty, and had no desire to spend that day apart. I gave up my job, any hope of income, and absconded to Cincinnati for three wonderful months.

The approval to apply didn’t arrive until the end of July, eight months after he had left and we’d begun this process. The approval told us they’d sent the case on to the National Visa Centre, who would be in touch within thirty days. We waited thirty days. We waited another seven. I sent a polite email, having not been provided with a phone number. We had no response.

My leave date loomed. I found myself tearful, clingy. A sense of impending doom hung over us, made every minute together bitter sweet. A desperate attempt to stockpile love, to hug long enough that it would carry us through.

I leave on Tuesday. We have just got the next letter through, a bill for $88 from the National Visa Centre. His Dad pays it. We can finally submit the next stage of paperwork. As for how long that will take, nobody really knows. It could be a month. It could be another six months. It could be a year.

I leave on Tuesday. My skin crawls with the sick anticipation of a half-empty bed. All this heartache, all this uncertainty. We cannot make plans. Cannot book tickets. I cannot even take a permanent job, knowing that I could be walking out the door in a month. Our life together has been on hold. Skype calls that were exciting when we were first dating became infuriating after so many years together. Too many memories of low wifi, poor video quality, trying to sync up across a five hour time difference and radically opposite schedules. The months ahead of me stretch out like a cold desert that I must cross with no map.

Turning thirty: Some thoughts on the big three-oh

I turned thirty on the 16th July. It was a fairly quiet celebration, as I’d already had my big party earlier in the year — before taking off to the USA for three months. We went on a boat trip, enjoyed a nice meal, and I drank a glass or two of wine. Restrained, and, honestly, pretty grown up.

I completed my thirty-before-thirty, or at least half the items on the list. I started coming up with ideas for my forty-before-forty. I completed the second draft of my second novel, and have almost completed the first draft of a sequel to The Rising Wind.

I also got some bad news about my visa. For those not in the know, I applied for a spousal visa to join my husband in the USA back in December 2013. Initial time estimates suggested we should have it by July. Further investigation suggested September. And now it looks like there’s yet more delays and we won’t get it until February 2015. So I’m facing another six months without my spouse, for no real reason other than red-tape. It all feels slightly kafka-esque.

But, because I’m thirty, I just sort of deal with it all. The day I got the news was the same day I started to apply for contract jobs back in the UK.

Turning thirty is considered a big deal in our society. In the same way that 18 (or 21) takes you from a teenager to a young adult, thirty takes you from young adult to very firmly adult. You probably have a career, as opposed to a job (well, maybe. The economy may have dictated otherwise). You may be married, or at least in a relationship that has lasted longer than three hours. You might have children or be planning for them (it feels like a lot of my friends have kids now).

It can carry a negative stigma. Choices start closing down. If you do want kids, you should definitely be getting your skates on (if you’re a woman). Suddenly decided you want to become a doctor? Thirty is probably your last chance.

Thanks to improved heath-care (at least for the middle and upper classes) thirty is no longer middle-aged. I can comfortably expect to live to eighty, as long as I don’t get hit by a bus or the world’s water supply doesn’t run out, or all the farmland doesn’t get turned to desert and/or vanishes underwater thanks to global warming.

In a lot of ways, I have more choices. I have more money (or less debt?). I can go after more prestigious jobs. I have enough experience that I can plan out exciting holidays. Life is stable enough that I can have a rough idea of where I’ll be in ten years and plan accordingly. When I was twenty I often had no idea what my life would look like next week!

There are exciting things to look forward to. Technology has reshaped culture, medicine, the way we interact, how we learn — and it’s only changing faster. In my lifetime I have watched the internet change everything. As it reaches more places, becomes faster, smaller, more synced up, it will change even more things. Driverless cars, doctors that can perform surgery thousands of miles away from where they are, wearables that can track all your health indicators and warn you the second you need to see a GP. And things out of science-fiction: private space-travel, faster-than-light warp drives, access to the entire worlds knowledge on a gadget smaller than a book.

At thirty, I’m more sure of myself. I know what I enjoy doing (hiking, camping, superhero movies, writing, reading, slow travel) and I know what I don’t enjoy doing (drinking too much, grimdark action movies, driving, chicklit). I don’t need to waste time on a bunch of stuff I don’t enjoy.

There are some things that I’m glad I kept hold of:

Your job is not your identity. I didn’t have a problem quitting my job and spending three months in the USA. Life is way too short to worry about ‘being a productive worker’. Yeah, you need money, and you can’t rely on other people’s goodwill forever… but equally don’t spend all your time building safety-nets and never actually going on the adventure.

On a similar note: your bank-account does not dictate your worth as a human being. The work that I am most proud of is often the work I got paid least for. Equally, the time I have spent supporting my friends, looking after my family, and generally ‘being a good person’ is worth far more than the time I spent copying numbers from paperwork to computer screen… even though the latter paid more.

When people tell you it’s ‘who you know’ that counts they are not kidding. Cultivate friends everywhere. Don’t ever be a jerk. Keep your promises. Always do your best work, even when it’s menial or boring.

Maintain interesting hobbies. Too many people spend their free time drinking or mindlessly watching netflix. Yes, netflix is cool, and sometimes you need the downtime. But at the same time you should have something you do that is just for you, that is interesting and keeps you busy and works your brain or your body but that you don’t get paid for.

Exercise. I was the nerdy kid who hated PE at school. But the older I get, the more I appreciate the way exercise helps me sleep, wards off depression, gives me energy and keeps me strong. I never want to exercise, but I am always glad when I do.

I guess that is all of my thoughts on being thirty… but I should have a forty-before-forty post up here soon. I have some exciting goals to aim for!

 

What have you done to help people lately?

If I had a hammer... I'd smash Patriarchy.It’s International Women’s Day. Hurrah! If you’re reading this you probably don’t hate women. You probably think they should get paid the same as a man for doing an equivalent job. You probably think they shouldn’t be beaten by their partners for being ‘disobedient’. And you might even have gone a bit deeper: asking questions like, why is it that women are the ones that normally stay home and look after the children?

All good things to think about.

Here are some other things to think about: the violence faced by those who are transgender.  The fact that women are far more likely to live in poverty. The way feminist spaces marginalise the disabled.

There are a lot of things to think about when it comes to social justice. You probably already know about them. There’s the concept of privilege and the way race, sex, sexuality, gender and class intersect with each other to create different types of prejudice and privilege.

How can I help people?

You can get pretty deep into social justice theory, there’s a lot to think about, and if that interests you I’d encourage you to follow it up. But what if you just want to make a difference, however small? You want to just take action and do something to help people because you’re so filled with rage about how human beings are treated?

Here are some ideas of how to help other people, ranging from the relatively easy to the pretty difficult. The links are mostly aimed at people in the UK, as that’s where I’m based, but the actual ideas apply to anyone.

  1. Read a book from an author of a different gender, sexuality, race than you normally read. Here’s a starting point if you like sci-fi and fantasy. Yes, reading is essential to developing empathy with people from different backgrounds. Plus, you’re helping to make a point about what authors we, as a society, want to support.
  2. Volunteer. Volunteering can range from anything to an hour in a soup-kitchen to a committed unpaid skilled position in a non-profit organisation. You can help almost anyone, from women to children to veterans to immigrants to those struggling with poverty or disabilities.
  3. Donate money to a charity whose causes you support. I do recommend doing some research into your charity first. The smaller and more local the charity, the more direct impact on your community you will have. However, the bigger charities have much more leverage and can put more pressure on governments to clean up their act. In the long run, they can (probably) achieve more systematic changes. However, big charities are also prone to many of the same issues that plague big corporations so… invest your donation wisely.
  4.  Make friends with your neighbours. You’d be amazed at how important community is, and how much we suck at looking after the people nearest to us. Bonus: it doesn’t just help other people, it means you have a support network.
  5. Talk to some of your friends. How are they doing? Are they struggling with anything? Can you help? Look particularly at: women who have just had a baby, families coping with sickness, women on their own, and older women. Some ideas of things you can do: cook them dinner, babysit, sit and listen, give them a place to go. Sometimes, all we need from a friend is for them to do our laundry.
  6. Review where the food and clothing you purchase regularly comes from. Is it fair-trade? Are you contributing to poverty and slavery in other countries?  Adjust your shopping accordingly. This obviously depends a lot on your own income levels. Do what you can, with what you have.
  7. Research reproductive justice. Think through your beliefs about: access to abortion, the way society treats young mothers, adoption, and class. Read lots! If you’re in the USA, consider becoming an escort outside an abortion clinic, in order to protect women from the pro-lifers.
  8. Vote.
  9. Do you work in a traditionally male-dominated field? Examples are: programming, science, politics, etc. How can you encourage a better gender balance? Perhaps you could volunteer to tutor young girls? Perhaps you can highlight notable female role-models? If you’re in a position where you hire/fire employees, look carefully at your track record. If you’re in a female-dominated field, do the same in reverse.
  10. Split the housework fifty-fifty unless there is a really really good reason not to. Got a son? Teach him to clean and cook. Seriously.
  11. If you run any kind of event or community space, go out of your way to welcome those from different backgrounds. Check how accessible you are. Approach your organisation from the perspective of someone who is non-white, an immigrant, disabled, or poor. What can you improve?

There are, of course, a lot more things we can all do but this is a starting point. What do you do to help people? All ideas welcome!

How to survive a long distance relationship

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve gone to an airport, said goodbye to my partner, and then either watched him get on a plane or got on a plane myself.

Today I did it again, and he flew away. I’ll hopefully be joining him in 3-6 months or so.

We’ve been married for over five years, and it gets harder each time to say goodbye. We do, however, have a pretty good track record for surviving the distance. Here are some tips:

1. Realise that it will always be more difficult than a short-distance relationship

Even when you hit that magical day where you are both living in one country, you are still going to be dealing with issues that other couples won’t be dealing with. One of you will have given up being near to family and friends, and that is tricky. On top of that, family and friends will have health problems or disasters and you won’t be around to help. At some point you’ll have to make decisions – you can’t just drive down to see your ailing grandfather (or grandfather-in-law) for a weekend. It’s a long-haul flight, plus vacation time. It’s not just the bad times you will miss either: new family members will get born, grow up, and you’ll just be their distant relative they never met.

None of these issues are unconquerable, but if you’re thinking that when you finally get together everything will magically be ‘perfect’… it won’t. And the shock of that might be harder than the original separation.

2. Spend time together

Play video games together, watch the same TV show at the same time, have dinner/lunch/breakfast dates, cook together on skype. Relationships are built on time spent together and sharing experiences. Talking (whilst important!) is not enough.

Book out ‘date’ time in advance, and stick to it.

3. Tell each other the mundane details of your day

As an extension of the above, if you don’t work at sharing the details of your lives with each other, it’s easy to grow apart. Yes, talking about your day of sharpening pencils may seem boring, but it’s these insignificant facts that build your lives towards each other. It’s much easier to feel close to someone if you can picture what they are doing, even if it is sharpening pencils!

4. Explain your emotions

When you are face-to-face it is easy to tell when your other half is upset. Sighing, throwing themselves onto the sofa with a groan, swearing as they chuck the keys down as they come through the door. Over skype, it’s much harder. So don’t expect the other person to be a mind-reader, just flat out say: I’m unhappy today, or I’m enthusiastic today.

The flip-side of that is to also ask your other half to explain their emotions. You might be happily chattering away about your exciting day of sharpening red and green pencils, and they might be silently thinking about how their Dad has just been diagnosed with cancer.

5. Plan your next meeting

Not being sure of when you will next see each other is horrible. It makes you anxious and tense. The way to beat that is to plan your next face-to-face meeting, even if you have to do it a year in advance. If you have a firm and solid date in your calendar you can anticipate it and make plans together. Otherwise it’s just a ‘someday’ dream, and those rarely work out.

6. Always have enough for a long-haul plane ticket in your savings account

Look, emergencies happen. Sometimes, if you love someone, you have to just go and be with them. Knowing that you can, that you have the money to do that, is a big help in getting through tough times.

What are your tips for surviving a long distance relationship?